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Summer Arts Explosion 

Fringe theater companies take center stage

It's almost unthinkable. Charlotte's vaunted car culture is being nudged aside in a radical summer makeover, forced to share the spotlight with... real culture!

At the Performing Arts Center, Belk Theater will be hosting splashy musicals throughout the summer months. Two blocks further north on Tryon, Spirit Square is popping off with a double-barreled rebirth, igniting the formerly moribund Duke Power and McGlohon Theatres.

That isn't all. Newly established theaters in SouthEnd, NoDa, on Central Avenue, and on Stonewall Street will also be percolating with live action. And yonder in SouthPark, Symphony Park will blossom with fresh programming.

The new Summer Sensations promo proclaims it out loud. Uptown is now an entertainment destination throughout the year. After Grease brings down the curtain on the 2003-04 Broadway Lights Series on June 8-13, three more musicals sashay into the Belk, Rent (June 29-July 3), Mamma Mia! (July 27-August 1), and Camelot (August 17-22). If the thrill of seeing Robert Goulet as King Arthur isn't enough, get ready for a double dose of nostalgia as Tim Conway and Harvey Korman shuffle into town for two shows (July 25).

Meanwhile up at Spirit Square, McGlohon Theatre continues to light up like an art house once a week. Fresh offerings in the Monday Night Movies series are now scheduled through August 30.

But the big news is at Duke Power Theatre where City Stage spotlights Charlotte's fringe theater scene for a four-week celebration, heralding "Off Broadway Edge" and "Uptown Ambiance." Chickspeare, Off-Tryon Theatre, Epic Arts Repertory, and the award-winning BareBones Theatre Group will take turns showing off their wares at the Power.

Off-Tryon leads off with a reprise of Melissa James Gibson's [sic] from last summer (July 8-11), starring the formidable trio of Nicia Carla, Aaron Moore, and Peter Smeal. Then BareBones replays their season opener from 2001, Jon Tuttle's satire on marital manipulation, Drift (July 15-18). Epic Arts follows with last year's best original play, obliquely revisiting Romeo and Juliet in Stan Peal's The Friar and the Nurse (July 22-25). City Stage then closes in a raucously comedic vein as Chickspeare replays their choicest morsels from the Bard in their crowd-pleasing Quickspeare (July 29-August 1).

City Stage has the exciting potential to lure new audiences away from Tryon Street toward the adventurous Charlotte fringe theater scene that surrounds their uptown comfort zones. But for those already initiated in the fringe scene, there's more new stuff to sample than ever before -- along with a golden oldie or two.

Actor's Theatre boldly extends their season beyond Memorial Day, giving us Betty's Summer Vacation (opens on June 16) at their supremely accessible location on 650 East Stonewall. Then they're bringing back Billy Ensley, Beth Pierce, and the whole grungy gang for an extended run of Hedwig and the Angry Inch (August 5), which will surely include several late-night Saturday performances.

Not far from Stonewall, some of the most outre theater of the summer will be presented at Children's Theatre, of all places. The Farm Theatre will be burrowing into the catacombs of CT's Black Box, exploring Ionesco's The Lesson (June 10) and Maria Irene Fornes' Mud (July 22).

Up in NoDa, Off-Tryon has the largest slate at their Cullman Avenue quonset. They finish out their 2003-04 season with Our Country's Good (June 3) and march past the equinox without missing a step. Glen Griffin's Intimate E-Pistles gets its first full production (July 8), followed by the US premiere of Scottish playwright John Clifford's Playing With Fire (July 29). After those two-week runs comes The Kathy and Mo Show (August 19).

Carolina Actors Studio Theatre will present Lenny's Back -- as in Bruce -- at the C.A.S.T. location off Central Avenue (June 16). Next they'll host Tony Wright's sci-fi action adventure, Omega, the breathlessly awaited sequel to last year's Alpha. Casey Gogolin returns to this new all-new Actor's Gym romp with fresh decolletage.

Are you counting all these? Well, there's more. Down in SouthEnd, BareBones Theatre Group welcomes their fourth annual 15-Minute Play Festival to their SPAC facility beginning on June 3, the same day that Theatre Charlotte opens their Carolina Playwrights Festival on Queens Road. Then BBTG opens their doors to Epic Arts Repertory, so you can catch Stan Peal's latest, Scratchy Scratcherton's Revenge at SPAC (June 10). Peal is pulling out all stops, promising insane costumes, loud guns, simulated sex, unbridled hip-hop dancing, and rampant pizza abuse. Maybe even Teletubbies.

Perhaps you and your family crave a musical interlude. Or the great outdoors. Charlotte Symphony Orchestra provides both with their ever-popular Summer Pops concerts at Symphony Park. The fireworks -- and the mad rush for squatter's rights on the SouthPark lawn -- begin on June 6 with weekly Sunday evening concerts at 8:15pm. The series scootches over to Saturday for its final holiday cannonade on July 3. The Symphony has also rescheduled the James Galway concerts for June 16 and 17.

But there's a new CSO series to be aware of. Building on the acclaimed (and often sold-out) Lollipops Concerts, Symphony now offers Popcorn Pops designed for kids and their families. These gatherings will also be at the Symphony Park bandshell on Friday nights, June 11 and 25, at 8:15 with pre-concert activities commencing at 7pm. In a radical innovation, adults will pay $10 to get in to the Popcorn concerts and children will add $5 each to the tab. Pre-purchase adult ticket prices are cut to $5.

Of course, no summer in Charlotte would be complete without Central Piedmont Summer Theatre at panoramic Pease Auditorium. CP's slate of three musicals, topped off with a comedy and a kiddie musical, has been a Queen City staple since the dawn of civilization. The fare is still outstandingly served at irresistible prices -- ample reason for scarce ticket supplies.

Cole Porter's Anything Goes kicks off CP's 31st season (June 9), followed by the decadence of Chicago (June 23) and the musical splendors of West Side Story (July 21). Kids get a musicalized "Ugly Duckling" called Honk, Jr. (July 5), and this year's comedy is Larry Shue's The Foreigner (July 7).

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